Songwriting 101: Lovedrug

Today I’ll be going over a song I wrote a couple years ago titled Lovedrug. This particular piece is a great example of how simplicity in songwriting can be effective. It uses the popular I, IV, V, vi chords which I previously discussed here. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading that article first in order to get a better understanding of chord relationships and why these chords work so well together. Let’s jump right in!

Lovedrug is in D# Major and is divided into two main sections using the following chords:

Verse: D# Major (I) – A# Major (V) – C Minor (vi) – G# Major (IV)

Chorus: D# Major (I) – C Minor (vi)

These chords can be very tricky to play on guitar, but there’s something we can do to make it more straightforward. We can place a capo on the 8th fret which allows us to play these chords in the open position. This makes the song easier to play because it allows us to use basic chord shapes. In practice, you could then use the following shapes:

Verse: G Major – D Major – E Minor – C Major

Chorus: G Major – E Minor

For those that are unfamiliar, these shapes look like this:

chordprogression2

 

 

 

Something to note is that we can easily transcribe songs to a different key while still using these same chord shapes by simply moving the capo up or down the neck. The reason I chose to use the key of D# Major (8th fret capo) for this particular song was because it was the best fit for my vocals. It’s often a good practice to experiment with your songs in different keys. While inexperienced singers may be limited with the keys they can use, it can provide a great deal of flexibility and even new ideas for how singers can perform the melody.  For Lovedrug I also experimented with using G Major and A# Major throughout the songwriting process.

Next let’s look at the song structure. I would categorize this song as ABABCBBC. Looking at each letter: A represents the verse, B represents the chorus, and C represents the bridge. My favorite part of Lovedrug was the chorus because the melody was particularly catchy, and therefore I wanted to emphasize this part of the song. To do this, I simply made it the most prominent part by repeating it four times in total. The only difference between the bridge and the verse is that the bridge uses a guitar riff instead of the verse melody.

Finally let’s take a look at the lyrics and melody:

I love to watch you squirm
Every time you lie
Feel the way it hurts

You get me high then you bring me down
Don’t know why I ever stick around
Hate to say, hate to say it now
Just a drug, just a drug, just a drug to me

Why did the fire die?
I want to watch it burn
Every single time

You get me high then you bring me down
Don’t know why I ever stick around
Hate to say, hate to say it now
Just a drug, just a drug, just a drug to me

The song is about an addiction to an unhealthy relationship. It highlights how we irrationally glorify the honeymoon phase with a partner and use it to justify lies and bad behavior. The lyrics are simple and easy to understand, but often times that’s exactly what a song needs to demonstrate its message clearly. I think I can accomplished that with this song.

For the melody I started with the simple idea of walking up a scale for the word “high” and walking down the same scale for the word “down.” After trying several variations I finally came up with the one I liked most. From there, I made several iterations of it and eventually picked one that ended up being the verse melody. Melody writing is often just coming up with 20 different ways to sing a single word- and then ultimately picking your favorite and expanding it.

Well that about wraps up Lovedrug. If you take anything away from this lesson I hope it’s that simplicity can do wonders with the right touch. It’s something you should always consider during the songwriting process because you may regretfully add too much. Thanks for reading.

The Power of 4 Chords

If you haven’t already, watch the video above. Odd isn’t it? How can 4 chords create so many different songs? What are these magical four chords and how do they work?

Before we can answer those questions, we need to have a basic understanding of music theory. In western music there are a total of 12 notes. These notes have intervals of half steps and together form the Chromatic scale. After the twelve notes the pattern repeats:

Beginning with the chromatic scale, we can then derive other scale formulas. The two most popular being the major scale and the natural minor scale. These scales are defined by a pattern of whole steps [W] and half steps [H]. Whole steps are simply two half steps. Both of these scales consist of 7 of the 12 total notes and begins with a root note [R].

Major Scale: R, W, W, H, W, W, W, H

Natural Minor Scale: R, W, H, W, W, H, W, W

Now let’s look at these scales in practice. For example, C Major Scale and A Minor Scale:

C Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

A Minor Scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A

For the purpose of this exercise, I’ve purposefully chosen two scales that don’t use any sharps or flats, however, you may apply major and minor scales to any of the other notes which would incorporate sharps/flats to varying degrees. Next, let’s assign Roman numerals to each of the notes. For the key of C Major, this would look like this:

C = I – D = ii – E = iii – F = IV – G = V – A = vi – B = VII (note: the upper/lowercase)

And for the Key of A Minor:

A = i – B = II – C = III – D = iv – E = v – F = VI – G = VII (note: the upper/lowercase)

Now that we’ve selected a couple of keys and have assigned roman numerals to each of their notes, let’s figure out what those four chords are! In music theory, numbers I, IV and V have a relationship called harmony. It is these numbers (1, 4 and 5) that determine 3/4 of the four chords used in the video above.

In order to go from notes to chords, we simply apply each note to it’s corresponding key. So for the C major scale, the chords I, IV, and V would be C Major, F Major, and G Major. For the A Minor scale, the chords i, iv and v would be A Minor, D Minor, and E Minor. You should think of numbers I, IV and V like x, y and z variables in math- they change based on the key they are in.

The process of changing these variables to different keys is known as transposing. This is often done to accompany the singers voice- and is exactly what the Axis of Awesome do in the video.

Below is the key of C Major transposed to a number of other keys:

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So what about the last chord? The last chord is the number VI (major) or vi (minor). Number VI is unique from the other chords in that it uses the opposite chord type. So for example in C Major, the vi (notice this is lowercase) would be an A minor chord rather than an A major chord. In contrast, in A Minor, the VI (uppercase) would be C major.

The VI distinguishes itself by giving contrast to the other three chords and ultimately helps create an emotional appeal. And that’s exactly why these chords are used so much in popular music. Something else to note is that in the video these chords are played in the same progression throughout (I – V – vi – IV). You can change the order of these chords, switch between them multiple times, or even add some new chords to the mix to create an almost endless number of possibilities.

Another important thing to note, which I don’t think many beginning songwriters realize, is that chord progressions are not protected by copyright. Melody and some other music elements are (I will discuss this more in depth in a future post).

Understanding how these four chords interact can substantially improve your songwriting abilities and how to compose with other musicians. Happy writing!

Songwriting 101: Curiosity

Greetings! It’s been a busy month starting up a new band and beginning to wrap up school, but I’m back with a third installment of my songwriting 101 series! This time I’ll be going over another Electronica song I finished a couple weeks back titled “Curiosity.” Let’s get right into it!

Curiosity is a medium to fast tempo song rocking at 140 BPM. For this song I wanted to incorporate a variety of different elements: ambient pads, natural sounding piano, pizzicato synth, organic percussion loops and soft vocals. The collaboration of these elements resulted in a mellow electropop song which was something I’ve been interested in writing for a while.

To begin, I started by creating an ambient pad progression which can be heard from the beginning of the song and played throughout in entirety. The ambient pitches I use are (B, E, F#, G#) which I retrieved from the major scale of B using the infamous I, IV, V, and VI chords. These chords (The Power of 4 Chords) lay the foundation for the song and create an uplifting and emotive feeling.

Next, I incorporated a simple piano lick to go over the ambient progression for both the verse and chorus parts. The piano is ultimately what gives the song the mid to fast range tempo and further provides a strong backbone for the melodic parts yet to be added. With the backbone completed, I went on to create the song structure.

When first listening to this song one might guess I’m using the song structure ABABCB, but it’s actually a bit more complex than that. I would classify this song as ABAABBCBBD. The reason for this is because both the verse and chorus are double in length after (0:54). The greatest advantage of this song structure is that it gives a glimpse of the entire song early on (AB) and then it expands in more detail as it goes on (AABB). Finally there’s (C) which is just the ambient pad and vocals, the chorus once again, and (D) the outro of the song. You can hear the outro of the song with the change of percussion at (3:12) and the zoning out of multiple instruments.

With the song structure in place, I could focus on defining the main parts of the song: the verse (A) and chorus (B). For the beginning two verses, I wanted to define them by three things: the ambient progression, the piano lick and the vocal melody. The final verse includes these three traits as well, but adds percussion into the mix which you can hear at (1:22).

To define the chorus, in addition to the three elements and percussion, I added a second percussion element and two sampled melodic synth parts. Check out SamplePhonics for some great sample packs to add some flavor into your music. In addition, in order to focus purely on the instrumentation and let it shine, I removed all vocals from the chorus.

As per my usual songwriting habits, I finished with writing the lyrics:

Let’s lose our normality
And get a taste of insanity
Why do I flee from this feeling?
That world is calling

Everyone’s the same
Can’t seem to escape from their old ways
Free will’s to blame
But we weren’t born to regret anything

Forever and ever we live our lives on fire
Facetious desire we hold our dreams up high
One more step until I’m free
One last breath to breathe

Funny how the truth works out
When you open your mind and see
You can’t believe the simple things
If you have a bit of curiosity

This was an incredibly personal song to write. It’s a song about failure, passion, love and understanding. It’s a song about evolving as a person and reflecting on that growth. My goal as always, however, is to leave the interpretation up to the listener. To be perfectly honest, this has been one of my favorite songs to write lyrically in a while. I think my words reveal exactly what I wanted to say. That wraps up this songwriting 101 for the day. Until next time!

Songwriting 101: Waves

Welcome to the second installment of my Songwriting 101 series where I dissect and explain the rationale behind the art of writing music. Today I’ll be going over a new Electronica song I recently wrote titled “Waves.” Let’s get started.

Waves is a slow tempo song that keeps a steady pace of 75 BPM. Slower tempos are often associated with styles like ambient, jazz, and soul in addition to some newer electronica genres such as downtempo and chill-out. These styles are frequently known for their relaxing and sensual feel. And this was exactly my aim while creating Waves. Electronica music, more than any other type, often begins with defining the tempo before doing anything else.

After deciding on my tempo of 75 BPM, I began to build a core foundation with a groove. For Waves, I decided on forming a groove around a simple drum beat and synthesizer. This core foundation is than repeated throughout the rest of the song, with the exception of a quick break in the middle of the song from (1:29 – 1:42).

With the core foundation created, I went on to form a song structure. I ultimately decided on going with a very simple structure of ABAB. For this song, “A” represents verse and “B” represents chorus. The reason for choosing this simple structure was because of the amount of instrumentation I planned on adding to the song. As a general rule of thumb, when I plan for 4+ instruments, the better it is to keep the song structure simple. In contrast, with less instrumentation, I like to make the song structure more complex to compensate. For Waves, I used 10 different instruments (including my voice) in total for the piece.

With the song structure in tact, the next step was to decide on how I wanted to define the verse and the chorus. After all, what’s the point of creating a song structure if there is no difference between the parts? Here’s how I broke the two parts down:

Verse: The verse is defined by the build of instrumentation. The beginning of each verse begins with the core foundation (groove), and gradually adds instrumentation every two bars. The end of the verse is recognized only when the entire set of instrumentation plays simultaneously (0:51 and 2:33).

Chorus: The chorus is defined by the simultaneous instrumentation and the vocal lyrics (1:04 and 2:46). The end of the chorus is recognized when the bass begins to play by itself (1:29 and 3:11).

I should also note that there is a short outro at the end of the song. The reason why I would still classify the song as ABAB over ABABA is because the length of this part is insignificant and it doesn’t fit with how I categorized my verses. For this reason, intros and outros (unless significant parts of the song), shouldn’t be included in the song structure.

Finally, let’s look at the lyrics:

Idealistic, utopian dream
The Sun and the moon blend into
Pools of emotion, A feeling waves
Can’t you see everything I do?

Like I mentioned in my first Songwriting 101, lyrics should make the listener curious. For this song, because of the minimal amount of lyrics, I really wanted to paint a picture in the listeners head. In order to do this I used several descriptive words like “idealistic” and “utopian” with words that everyone can relate to like “sun” and “moon” and “emotion.” As another general rule of thumb, I purposely like to be more vague for songs with a lot of lyrics because there are more words to play with. For songs like Waves that have few lyrics, detail is king.

Hopefully this 101 has been of some use to you. Make sure to check out my previous article Songwriting 101: Goodbye and to follow my blog for more songwriting tips. Thanks for reading!

Songwriting 101: Goodbye

I thought it would be fun to start a new series called Songwriting 101. This series will consist of looking at and breaking a song down to see some of the fundamental ideas that make it whole. Today I’ll be doing a new acoustic song I recently wrote titled “Goodbye.”

 

For this song I used one of the most common song forms known as ABABCB. Each letter represents a different part in the song. “A” represents verse, “B” represents Chorus and “C” represents bridge. This standard song form is great because it’s simple yet effective. The verse and chorus create a strong foundation and the bridge adds just enough variation to keep the song interesting. It’s an extremely popular style used in both pop and rock music.

During the verse I use a swinging transition between 2 chords: G major and C major. To lighten the mood of the song, I palm mute the guitar and add a complete stop in the middle of each verse. This enables the vocals to stand out and places the primary focus on the melody and lyrics. If you need help writing melodies, check out my 3 Tips For Writing Strong Melodies.

For the chorus, I stop the palm mute and go into a more upbeat rhythm. I also add in two more chords in addition to the ones from the verse for a total of 4 (G Major, C Major, E Minor and D Major). Finally I give the chorus a bit of color by using a complex chord progression. The progression goes like this ( G – E – C – D – G – D – C). The chorus melody was created by taking part of the verse melody and adding its own variation. Just as an example, I hold out notes on the words “hate” and “goodbye” to differentiate them a bit.

Finally, for the bridge I wanted to keep a similar feel to the chorus so I stuck with an upbeat rhythm and the same chords. The major difference here is the change in rhythm and variation on the progression. In addition, I included some color tones in order to make the bridge stand out a bit more. The progression used here is ( G – D – C – G – E – C – G – D – C – E – D – C – D). The color tones are added in the last 4 chords of the progression.

Finally- the lyrics:

Every day, I know what you’re thinking
“I’m a saint, living life still believing
In a fate,” well I think I found a reason to try and change.
Rest assured, something I’ll never be cause
Lines blur, you love to hate the demon
Little words, can best describe the feeling “I’m free at last.”

But I’ll remember every single time
And I will never hate that life
But now it’s over, I’m looking for my voice
Just to say goodbye

It’s kind of hard, speaking the same old language
From the start, “10 candles light the way when
We fall apart,” Just wash the pride away and find a heart
You are, the enemy of reason
Cross scarred, can’t seem to breathe when thinking
In the dark, hands on the tree of treason to trust in fate

But I’ll remember every single time
And I will never hate that life
But now it’s over, I’m looking for my voice
Just to say goodbye

Effective songwriting allows the interpretation to be left up to the listener. Personally, I believe it’s important to find a balance between being vague and descriptive. Striking the right balance between the two will allow the general idea to be understood, but leave the listener curious and interested in digging deeper to understand the details of the song.

This is the first of many Songwriting 101 articles I plan on doing. For now I’m simply going to cover my own songs, but it’s very possible I may go over a few popular songs in the future. Remember: Dissecting songs is one of the best ways to improve your skills as a songwriter.

3 Tips For Writing Stronger Melodies

Writing a strong melody is arguably the most important aspect in creating a popular song. It also happens to be one of the most difficult. Often times this is one of the key reasons that prevents a good band or musician from reaching the limelight and their full potential.

One of the best ways to improve your own melodies is by looking at and identifying the melodic characteristics of some of the most popular songs over the last century. By dissecting these songs we can begin to understand why those melodies are so damn good and catchy.

After performing surgery on dozens of songs over the years I’ve come across a few consistencies between many of them. Here are 3 tips for writing stronger melodies:

1) Use Wide Interval Leaps

One of the most classic examples of using wide interval leaps is found in the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Notice the interval between the first two notes of the word “somewhere.” This interval is actually a perfect octave. This makes the melody stand out right away because it’s unexpected to the listener. Using wide interval leaps tastefully can help compliment the smaller leaps and turn an average melody into an outstanding one. This is a great technique to make the chorus shine, but don’t be afraid to experiment with it in other parts of your songs.

2) Develop a Rhythmic Theme

Paul McCartney is the master of developing rhythmic themes. One of my favorite examples of this is The Beatles song Eleanor Rigby.  Listen to the theme of the main phrase of the tune (“Eleanor Rigby picks up the..”). You’ll notice it’s broken up into an unusual length of 5 measures that uses a pattern of “1 + 3 + 1.” This strange combination gives the songs melody a very unique and stylistic feel. You can incorporate this technique into your own song by breaking up your melody into simple pieces and experimenting with various combinations in different orders.

3) Implement Color Tones

Color tones are pitches added to major or minor triads to extend the shades of either the major or minor tonality. In a C triad for example, a color tone might be Cmaj7 or Cmaj9. By adding color tones to your melody,  it provides richness to the song. One of the most popular examples of this is Radiohead’s High and Dry. You can hear the color tone note when the singer sings the word “high” during the chorus. The note isn’t within the chord that is being played, but it doesn’t sound like the note is wrong either. By adding color tones to your melodies, you can add a lot of texture which makes the song come to life.

Hopefully these tips were of some use to you. Cheers and happy writing!

A Passion for Music

It’s been 5 years since I first picked up a guitar and started writing my own music. It’s actually kind of incredible how much perspective you can gain in such a short amount of time. I still remember writing my first few songs while still in high school- spending every class writing down terrible lyrics and tapping my pencil on every desk. Even after school, I spent countless hours in my bedroom churning out ideas. Every single one of those songs ended up being awful, but I don’t regret a second of it.

I’ve grown quite a bit since then. In terms of music, I’ve learned all kinds of things from chord progressions, scales, picking patterns, and even the ability to create unique melodies. But aside from my new knowledge and technical abilities, I now understand the difference between wanting to write a hit song vs needing to write because you just have to.

Wanting to write a hit song is all about writing music for the reward. Fame, sex, money or whatever it is, these people simply want to use music as a tool to fulfill their own personal desires. Being in multiple bands and playing with hundreds of people, I realize now there’s many musicians of this kind. And to be quite frank, I was one of them for a while. Ironically, it wasn’t until after I stopped giving a shit about “making it” did I realize that I was in love with the art of songwriting and sharing my music with the world. I plan on creating music until the day I die.

I think to be successful at anything in life you truly have to be passionate about it. The second you start doing something strictly for its rewards, you are doomed to fail. So to all my fellow songwriters out there: Never stop creating, stay authentic and do it because it’s what you love.